Lauren kicked off a life long goal to visit every continent with her study abroad semester in Australia. Her time in Sydney with CAPA International Education, which included an internship with the National Parks Association of New South Wales, opened her eyes to new career options. Read on for her first impressions of the land Down Under, an interaction with a friendly local and her struggle to settle back into the life she left behind when she returned to the States - something most study abroad alumni experience but rarely talk about.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
LAUREN WOOD: I’m from Middletown, New York, a little bit north of the city. I go to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and I’m a junior studying Environmental Science.
CW: Where and when did you study abroad with CAPA International Education?
LW: I went to Sydney during the Fall 2012 semester.
CW: Why did you decide to study abroad and why specifically Sydney?
LW: I've wanted to study abroad since I was in high school because I’d never left the continent before Australia. One of my life goals is to travel to every continent, so spending a college semester in Australia was the perfect way to start out my goal. I've never heard anyone say they didn't like Australia and Sydney seemed like it would be the spot with the most opportunities for exploring local customs.
CW: Tell us about your first impressions of Sydney and any impressions that changed by the time you went home.
LW: My first impression of Sydney was the entire city was overwhelming, but it was probably just the jet-lag taking over my brain, along with the anticipation for the next few months. By the time I left Sydney I was pretty familiar with the city, which was a big accomplishment for me. Throughout my whole program, the people I encountered were super friendly and very willing to help one another. This friendliness didn’t change at all during my semester. The accents were quite entertaining though and that never went away - it just got slightly less distracting by the end of my program.
CW: What were the biggest challenges you faced in adapting to your host country? What was the most rewarding moment?
LW: It took me a long time to get used to the cars on the other side of the road. When we were getting into the taxi at the airport to go to our apartments, my roommate got into the driver’s seat thinking it was the passenger side. It took me at least two full months to finally be comfortable with crossing the road without looking like such a tourist.
The exchange rate and the cost of living were hard to get used to as well. It was the first time I’d ever had to buy groceries and cook for myself, but I never knew that the food, clothes, and entertainment were so much more expensive than in the US.
My most rewarding moment was when my friends and I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I had crossed it several times by bus and train each week and each time I made sure to look at the Sydney Opera House when I passed it. Standing on top of the bridge felt like I’d finally conquered the city! It was a great view of the Harbour and the Opera House. We saw a bunch of weddings too!
CW: Did you have a chance to interact with the local community? If so, tell us about one interaction that stood out for you.
LW: One day within the first week in Sydney my friend and I had just left the train station closest to our apartment, which was still a 30 minute walk or 10 minute bus ride back to our place. We came out of an unfamiliar exit at the train station and just started walking in the direction we thought was correct. After walking for about 20 minutes in unfamiliar areas, we decided we needed to stop and ask the next person we saw for directions. This lady near us was pushing a stroller and we decided to ask her for help. She didn’t know exactly where we wanted to go so she took out her iPhone and looked up directions for us. It took a few minutes to load so we started chatting about the area and important landmarks to look for. When she gave us the directions back to our place, it was comforting to see how the locals were so friendly and willing to help random strangers.
CW: Now that you are back in the States, have you felt any sort of reverse culture shock? What does it feel like? Any advice for other students experiencing the same thing?
LW: When I first got back home I was afraid to drive because I knew I’d accidentally end up on the wrong side. I waited a few days before I drove and even then I made sure I had someone else in the car with me just in case. Walking on the right in general has also been hard for me since I’ve been home. Common courtesy in the US is to stay to the right on escalators, stairs, and hallways, but for three months I’d concentrated on keeping to the left and that habit was pretty hard to break.
Another thing that was hard to get used to at home was how fast-paced everyone is here. In the laid back culture of Australia, people seem less interested in being punctual than here in the US. People in Sydney were more relaxed and nonchalant in the workplace than I was used to at home. These small cultural differences added up to a big adjustment in my perspective of daily norms, especially in the workforce.
CW: What have you been up to since you returned to the US? Do you feel that your experience with CAPA will play a role in your success starting your career?
LW: Upon arrival back home, I've been looking for ways to return to Australia. One day I hope to live there for an extended period of time. I've also been keeping in very close contact with all the people I met during my program, both Australians and Americans. I love looking through my pictures and trying to remember as much about each moment the picture captured as possible - where it was, who took the picture, what I did right before or after the picture was taken, stuff like that.
My internship through CAPA has really helped me establish myself in my area of study. An environmental science degree provides a wide range of opportunities for me in the future. As an intern for the National Parks Association of New South Wales, I was exposed to several different possibilities for the type of work I’d like to do after graduation.
CW: If you were to go through the same experience all over again, what do you wish you would have known in advance?
LW: I wish I’d known how hard it would be to adjust to life after studying abroad. I knew I would face difficulties adapting to life in a different country, but I didn't think it would be so hard to come back to the life I had known for 20 years. Adjusting to life in Australia wasn't too hard - probably because I was so excited and open-minded about being in a new country. It was all of the small cultural differences that I’d quickly adapted to in three months that added up to hard changes when I got home.
CW: What advice would you offer other students currently on a study abroad program or considering one?
LW: First of all, you need to be open-minded and willing to accept local customs in order to get the most of a study abroad experience. Then if there’s a small part of you that thinks you can handle it, DO IT.
Then I would tell them to take as many pictures as possible. Take advantage of all the free opportunities you can find. Travel, see, and do as much as your budget allows. Try different cuisines and do what the locals do. Participate in local festivities and traditions. It’s the best way to really understand what really sets our cultures apart.
CW: What did your study abroad experience teach you about yourself and those around you?
LW: During my time abroad I learned a lot about myself. Throughout the whole experience I became much more independent. I grew comfortable navigating the city on my own, staying in hostels, and aimlessly exploring unfamiliar areas. Interacting with strangers wasn't a problem and I really liked talking with as many locals as possible. I no longer felt as though I needed someone with me at all times in order to really appreciate the experience, no matter how seemingly insignificant it was.
During my semester I took a trip to Cairns and met a lot of other foreigners. Cairns is a very backpacker-friendly place where hostels and travel agents are abundant. The week I spent there was filled with new experiences and meeting new people from all around the world. It was fascinating to meet people from so many different countries. They were all so friendly and eager to hear about my life back home. It was as if we were all trying to experience each other’s cultures through a bunch of random hilarious stories. We all just wanted to know what more there is to discover on this planet.